- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

SEOUL — One of Korea’s last princes lives out of a two-seat van packed with books, laundry and a microwave oven. He used to sing at nightclubs for American soldiers and sleep in flophouses.

Yet he is so proud of his bloodline that he never takes off his clothes in a public bathhouse when others are around.

Now, Yi Seok, 62, is pursuing a one-man crusade to restore the lost dignity of his ancestral Yi dynasty family, which ruled the Korean Peninsula for 518 years until colonial Japan took over in 1910.

“If I die, there will be no one left to tell the stories of the last royal family,” he said.

South Korea is proud of its heritage, which includes the invention of the Korean alphabet during the Yi dynasty. Historical dramas about romance and bloody coups at the ancient royal court are TV staples. At the old royal palaces in Seoul, tourists watch a changing of the royal guard and court music performances.

But few in South Korea know the names or whereabouts of relatives of the last Yi king.

Koreans accuse the dynasty’s last rulers of incompetence and blame them for Korea’s humiliating 35-year subjugation by the Japanese.

“I am aware of the criticism,” said Mr. Yi. “But with all its achievements and failures, the royal family deserves better treatment.”

Although a few hard-core supporters argue for South Korea to switch to a monarchy, Mr. Yi considers such demands unrealistic. Instead, he believes the government should let him live in a palace — “at least as a tourist attraction.”

The government is not considering the idea, citing public skepticism.

Mr. Yi also wants to build a museum where people can learn about the dress, food and rules of etiquette at the royal court.

Four years ago, he established a National Federation for Preserving the Great Korean Royal Court — an organization that operates mainly out of his van. He runs a Web site and claims thousands of members who are asked to pay at least 1,000 won a month, or about 85 cents.

A member recently wrote: “Your Highness, I have always wondered about you. … Now that I know you are alive, I am brimming with tears of happiness.”

“Some people call me crying,” Mr. Yi said. “An 80-year-old man called me the other day, offering to come up to Seoul just to bow before me.”

Most people, however, aren’t even aware of the prince or his campaign.

“I both feel sympathy and anger at the last king and his family,” said Kim Jae-chun, a taxi driver. “I understand why people do not want to think about the subject. It’s embarrassing history.”

Mr. Yi speaks with a polite yet authoritative tone. He wears clean, ironed suits and combs his hair before posing for photos.

The Yi dynasty crumbled during the reign of Yi Seok’s grandfather, King Ko Jong, when more powerful nations jockeyed for control of Korea. Rival court factions shifted their support to Chinese, Russian and Japanese forces, and the intrigue led to the assassination of the queen by Japanese soldiers.

Ko Jong had dozens of grandchildren. Of them, Yi Seok is the only grandson living in South Korea. All his elder brothers are dead. Two younger brothers run auto repair and liquor shops in the United States. He also has two sisters in the United States, and three in South Korea.

A 74-year-old son of an uncle of Mr. Yi’s, who was taken to Japan as a hostage and forced to marry a Japanese woman, lives in Japan. Some royal clansmen consider him the first in line to the throne, but most Koreans do not, feeling insulted that a Korean prince was born to a Japanese mother.

Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea in 1948 after the peninsula was divided between the Soviet Union and the United States at the end of World War II and the end of Japanese colonial rule, let Yi Seok’s family live in one of the several royal palaces in Seoul, but confiscated the royal family’s wealth. Mr. Rhee — who opposed the Yi dynasty as a young man, converted to Christianity while imprisoned in Seoul, earned degrees as an exile in the United States from George Washington University, Harvard and Princeton — saw the Yi family as a potential threat to his rule.

“We still had court ladies who followed me everywhere,” Yi Seok said with a chuckle, recalling the years before 1960, the year Syngman Rhee was overthrown. “They would plead to me not to run because running was beneath a prince’s dignity.”

According to the court’s customs, his mother referred to Mr. Yi as “Your Highness.” “My high school friends found that strange,” he says.

When South Korea’s military rulers in the 1960s cut off financial allowances for Yi Seok’s family, he went to work as a disc jockey. In 1962, he began singing at nightclubs, entertaining American soldiers with such songs as “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”

“I sang at every U.S. military base in South Korea. I was a cross between Andy Williams and Pat Boone,” he recalled. “An aunt learned about this and she wept and lamented that a Korean prince became ‘a clown,’ but I had to make a living.”

Mr. Yi won national fame with a 1970s hit, “A House of Doves,” a melody about a happy family, but emigrated to the United States when Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan took power in a coup in 1979 and evicted his family from the palace.

Overstaying his American visa, Mr. Yi mowed lawns, cleaned swimming pools and worked as an armed guard in a liquor store in the Los Angeles area. After securing a green card, he ran his own liquor store.

He returned home in 1989.

“I had no place to go. So I went to my old home, the palace, but guards there would not let me in. I jumped the walls at night to sleep in there, but the place was too damp when unheated,” he said.

Mr. Yi had three short-lived marriages. He has two daughters and a son, all born to different mothers.

A sympathetic landlord has let Mr. Yi use a small office. Scattered about are unpacked boxes. Downstairs, music throbs from the Don’t Tell Mama nightclub. On one wall hangs a framed slogan: “Let’s Rebuild the Great Korean Royal Family.”

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